by Janusz Bugajski
August 04, 2022
Successive U.S. administrations have failed to develop an effective policy approach toward Russia. Decisions have not been informed by hard reality but by wishful thinking that Moscow can become a constructive partner in resolving international problems.
Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a realistic long-term plan is urgently needed to confront Russia’s imperialism and manage the consequences of its state failure driven by military defeat and a crippled economy. During each U.S. administration, influential reports are routinely issued by former officials and experts proposing either a new detente or “reset” with Russia, the pursuit of “strategic stability” based on cooperation in narrow arenas such as arms control, or simply “managing” the bilateral confrontation. Such approaches not only failed to transform Russia into a reliable partner, but they actually enabled the Kremlin to garner financial resources in the pursuit of empire.
Instead of repeating the same strategic mistakes, policy planning needs to concentrate on how the instability generated by war and sanctions will affect Russia’s statehood and foreign policy. The U.S. National Security Strategy issued in December 2017 affirmed that Russia was a major rival aiming to weaken Washington’s international influence and divide the United States from its allies. Given this accurate geopolitical assessment, Moscow’s offensives need to be reversed not only by arming Ukraine to liberate all of its territories, but also by capitalizing on Russia’s internal weaknesses to preclude future aggression.
A realistic policy should be based on a narrative of Western success and not on fear of a Russian threat.
Russia’s conventional military has demonstrated in Ukraine that it is no match for the U.S. or NATO. The overarching Western anxiety is based on Russia’s possession of the second-largest nuclear arsenal. The erroneous supposition is that Russia’s leaders are willing to commit national suicide rather than calculate how to salvage their political futures and economic fortunes, regardless of Russia’s fate. Tellingly, President Vladimir Putin recently admitted that no one would win a nuclear war, thus undercutting the veracity of previous Kremlin threats against NATO that paralyzed some Western leaders.
Moreover, Russia’s weapons of mass destruction are protected by the most loyal elements of the security forces and are highly unlikely to be seized by rebels and insurgents. Even in the eventuality that some states emerging from a collapsing Russian Federation acquire control of such weapons and, crucially, the means to deploy and fire them, they will have no reason to target any countries from which they will seek political backing, diplomatic recognition, and economic assistance. On the contrary, post-Russian states are likely to favor nuclear
disarmament to help gain international support, much like Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Putin’s regime survival is thus based on stoking fear regardless of actual Western policy. To counter Kremlin disinformation, openly declared support for pluralism, democracy, federalism, the autonomy of dozens of republics and regions, and a broad range of civil and ethnic rights can help embolden citizens in Russia and demonstrate that they are not isolated on the world stage despite Moscow’s oppressive policies.
Ultimately, the West needs to ensure that Russia is sufficiently blunted militarily and economically so that it will no longer be capable of waging aggressive wars against its neighbors. A rump Muscovite state under intense international sanctions and shed of its resource base in Siberia and the northern territories when the state begins to rupture will have severely reduced capabilities for any militaristic policies.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington. His new book, Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture, has just been published.